This is a response to an article on the International Socialist Networks blog which I’ve found pretty concerning. Mistress Magpie writes about the government’s decision not to allow escort ads on Universal Jobmatch, the jobcentre’s website. She seems mainly concerned with what this implies in ideological terms, less so with the real material consequences of having or not having escort ads on the website, for claimants and sex workers. I understand that Mistress Magpie is no longer in the ISN, and has moved on to a gig writing for the Guardian. She’s since noted the effect that her position of relative privilege might be having on her writing and welcomes constructive criticism. So it’s in the spirit of comradely debate that I’d like to pick apart some of the problems in this blog post and outline an alternative perspective.
Mistress starts by stating that sex is a basic human need. Though I would agree that the moralising around sex work has dangerous consequences for sex workers, I don’t think arguing for the necessity of sex work from the perspective of clients is a productive place to start in countering this. As a sex worker, I have no interest in trying to justify the industry that profits from my labour, nor in defending the sense of entitlement my clients demonstrate towards my body. My interests as a worker are in improving my conditions and my pay. Very often this conflicts with the interests of my clients who would like to demand I take whatever risks with my health they desire, for as long as possible and for as little pay as possible. As workers our demands to be able to work free from criminalisation, stigma, and violence need to start with our own material needs. Were our work actually necessary (and I’m not convinced it is) that might translate to a certain amount of bargaining power in real terms. However when workers in vital industries and caring professions strike for better conditions, their supposed responsibility to continue working for the good of society is used as an argument to undermine solidarity towards the strikers from other workers. It shouldn’t be necessary to refer to the notion of the sad sex-starved clients to explain what is wrong with, for example, police violence against sex workers. We don’t need to justify our work to legitimise our struggle.
Mistress continues to argue for the legitimacy of our work by making the case for working in the sex industry. She says “Sex work has its pitfalls and drawbacks, but it’s one way to avoid the degradation and harsh conditions of today’s zero-hours contracts wasteland.” For many sex workers it is both, the pitfalls and drawbacks of sex work, but also degradation in their job as a sex worker, and being self-employed, sometimes for a boss who doesn’t need to guarantee a wage but still gets all the benefits of an employer. She says “To my friends, food and fuel insecurity are far more frightening prospects than the stigma of sex work.” Once again there are many people experiencing both. The sex industry doesn’t deserve to exist because it is pleasant to work in, it needs to be pleasanter to work in because, for better or for worse, it exists. Whether it represents a choice between a cush office job and a fulfilling job in the sex industry, or a choice between not being able to feed oneself (or ones kids) and doing a job in the sex industry that they detest, workers will continue to opt to be a sex worker when it seems to be the best of the options available to them. Rather than singing the virtues of work in a particular industry, we need to demand more options for everyone, childcare for working mothers, a decent income for sick and unemployed people, better wages, and better conditions in all work, so that we aren’t constantly choosing between a bad option and a worse one.
In reality putting escorting positions on the job centres website provides the opportunity for further coercion in the form of sanctions. Mistress is aware of this, “Of course nobody should be forced to apply for an escorting position, but nobody should be coerced into applying for any job that does not suit their abilities”. As it is though, they would be forced into applying for an escorting position as claimants are forced into applying for other jobs. The level of control that jobcentre staff have over claimants is already shocking. They can print out any job and demand the claimant applies for it under the threat of sanctions. I imagine some job centre advisers also frequent brothels, and would have an interest in harassing their choice of claimant into a job there. Poverty is one reason why some people are forced into the sex industry against their will, and the jobcentre website including those jobs just provides another route by which people can end up coerced into it. Whatever our feelings as sex workers about sex work in comparison to other work, we can’t ignore the fact that being forced into sex work is likely to be a lot more distressing for people who have no experience of it than being forced into most other industries. At this point also, a lot of sex work jobs have appalling conditions, partly due to many businesses in the sex industry operating semi-legally. Much as we can say it shouldn’t be like this, it is.
The concern about whether the jobcentre includes escorting ads is a concern over their implied position that they don’t view it as proper work. I don’t particularly care what the government or the job centre think sex work is, I care about the ways in which they make it more dangerous. I’m not trying to win them over ideologically, they’re already a lost cause. I just want them to give us what we need. In this case, there are no practical benefits to a demand that they allow escorting ads on their website, and would make things worse. Supposing Mistress were to convince the government to put escorting positions on their website, she’d be putting people in a less privileged position at risk for the sake of making an ideological point about how she wants her own work to be viewed.
Making the point that sex work is work is one that we need other workers to understand. We need our unions, political organisations, communities, to include us as workers. We need to build a class consciousness that recognises that we all need to fight against harassment, bullying and intimidation from bosses, the risks of precarity, fees demanded to be able to work, wage theft, unsafe working conditions and all the other perils of work that we have in common. We need to support other workers in their struggles for better conditions and appeal to them to in turn support ours.